Stand-up comedy's repeat offender

The winner of this year's Perrier Award for comedy is Otis Lee Crenfield, a tattooed trailer-trash ex-convict you'd be wise to steer clear of. Rachel Halliburton talks to his creator, Rich Hall
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The Independent Online

For the first and only time at this year's Edinburgh Festival, Otis Lee Crenshaw knew he had been upstaged. Four young men erupted out of dry ice, wearing little more than devils' horns and giant erect penises, growling with testosterone-fuelled aggression at the audience. It was the press launch for one of the Fringe's main venues, the Pleasance, and Crenshaw was hosting the event with an aggressive wit and been-round-the-block intelligence that was guaranteed to win a few smiles from even the most hardened show-business hack in the crowd. "There's no use taking pictures of me any more," he growled at the frenzied photographers. "You've just got photos of a 43-inch cock."

For the first and only time at this year's Edinburgh Festival, Otis Lee Crenshaw knew he had been upstaged. Four young men erupted out of dry ice, wearing little more than devils' horns and giant erect penises, growling with testosterone-fuelled aggression at the audience. It was the press launch for one of the Fringe's main venues, the Pleasance, and Crenshaw was hosting the event with an aggressive wit and been-round-the-block intelligence that was guaranteed to win a few smiles from even the most hardened show-business hack in the crowd. "There's no use taking pictures of me any more," he growled at the frenzied photographers. "You've just got photos of a 43-inch cock."

Otis Lee Crenshaw, winner of this year's Perrier Award, is the kind of character most people love to watch on stage, but would hate to sit next to on a plane. Created three years ago by US comedian Rich Hall, Crenshaw is a snarling, tattooed ex-convict, with a gravelly voice that sounds like it's been to the depths of Hell and back, and a habit of marrying women called Brenda. He glowers murderously at his audiences, one arm crudely decorated with the name of all seven of his wives - "You know what it's like," he confides. "Last time I got married, the preacher gave me a pager" - and tells the story of a childhood so bleak that "Blues singers used to stop off at our house when they suffered from writers' block."

His act is accompanied by country songs that simultaneously outrage and delight audiences with their darkness: last year his song about prison rape, "He Almost Looks Like You", was a highlight; this year his love song about stalking - "I just call it selective walking," - has been animatedly quoted all round Edinburgh bars.

When he performs, Hall, 44, has the kind of presence that rips through the room and seizes audience members aggressively by the throat. He is at his best in a small, tightly-packed venue where all you can smell is cigarette smoke, beer fumes, and a hint of fear. Ironically, the first time he looked slightly ill-at-ease during this Festival was at the Perrier Pick of the Fringe, when as the award winner he had to play to luminaries like Angus Deayton below the chandelier at the Assembly Rooms - far too civilised for the likes of Crenshaw. Watching him, it suddenly became apparent that making Otis Lee Crenshaw a prize-winner was missing the point - what does one of life's most hard-bitten losers do when suddenly he's being fêted as the chattering classes' social darling?

Hall couldn't agree more, confirming that "Otis would have trouble accepting the Perrier". He also points out that the healthier-than-thou brand of sparkling water would have trouble fitting in with Crenshaw's raddled, Jack-Daniels-soaked image. The way Hall spent the night of the Perrier announcement was far more appropriate to his stage-persona: he left the Perrier party early, "and then I hung out at the jail for a while, because Simon Munnery [of the League Against Tedium] had been arrested". Hall was nowhere near the original incident, which began when Royal Mile residents complained about a noisy crowd, including Arthur Smith and Simon Munnery, who were using Munnery's trademark megaphone to broadcast their presence. When police came, one officer was physically assaulted - though not by either comedian - but the ironic result was still that Munnery spent a night in police cells, with Edinburgh's most famous fictional convict waiting on the other side of the bars.

In the flesh, Hall occupies much less space than his alter-ego. On stage he may stride and bellow, but the man in the pale green shirt who comes and sits opposite me has a huddled, thoughtful air, the look of a man who takes his comedy very seriously. Contrary to the popular opinion that the United States - because of commercial successes like Friends and Frasier - is far more comedically healthy than Britain at the moment, he made an active decision to come to England because he thinks stand-up comedy on his side of the Atlantic has died, quite literally, on its feet. "I've seen it go from a burgeoning art-form to a commodity," he complains. "This year I came from the Montreal Festival straight to Edinburgh. In Montreal it's a trade fair where comedians are treated like produce, being picked over by these TV executives who want to put the next energetic, decent-looking comedian into a sitcom. Otis went down well, but most people there were more interested in seeing someone for seven minutes than for one hour."

It is one of the secrets of Hall's continuing success that he snarls at sanitised comedy, insisting that good comedians should drag you into areas which make you feel uncomfortable. He cites Rob Newman as a British comedian whom he admires, as Newman continues to stake out new political territory for his stand-up routines. But Hall himself almost got into trouble this year for making the public feel too edgy with a song implying that Crenshaw had been abused as a child. A journalist seized on a review describing the song, and the next thing Hall knew, the Church of Scotland had issued a condemnation.

Hall dismisses the story as "bad journalism", protesting that the song is "meant to show Otis as a screwed-up kid". In the song, Crenshaw's mother offers him cake in return for details of what his uncle is doing, so he builds the story up as much as possible. Hall condemns child abuse as evil, but also states that there is "a grey area between reality and exaggeration", which he wanted to examine through the lyrics. It is the blackest way possible of showing Crenshaw for the opportunist that he is, but while columnists pronounce solemnly on his intentions, it is inescapable that Hall is also staying true to the kind of background that would have made his alter-ego a regular in jail.

The differences between Crenshaw and his creator are not as great as some people might think. Hall was born in Virginia, and spent a lot of his childhood living in trailer parks with his welder father and his stepmother. He tells me that Crenshaw is an amalgam of details from the relatives he meets at Christmas. And, as he describes one uncle who lives in a trailer with his two sisters, but has to sleep in the corridor and has nowhere to smoke but outside the funeral-parlour across the road, you can almost hear the sound of the Blues droning in the background.

Hall, however, faces a somewhat more prosperous future, as TV executives line up to work out how Otis Lee Crenshaw can best be brought to a wider public. The comedian likes the idea of reworking a series of old Elvis films, after watching some recently, and thinking how much better Crenshaw could do them. And for next year's Edinburgh - "something along the lines of what would happen if Sam Shephard wrote a comedy musical. I have an image of a huge fat cop trapped somehow and singing." And for the first time in the interview he smiles: "Don't hold me to that."

Rich Hall will perform at Her Majesty's Theatre, London W1 (0207-494 5558) on 15 Oct, 7.30pm

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